Writings by Cole Huffman

When Should You Defend Yourself?

The first time I can recall being put on the defensive was when a girl in a church I served long ago questioned my sanctification if not my salvation for belonging to a college fraternity. I was serving her church as a youth pastor, still in college, and when the service ended each Sunday night during the school year I hustled back to campus to make my fraternity’s weekly chapter meeting. The girl was a student at the same university and simply couldn’t believe a young Christian man—interested in pastoring no less—would willingly associate with such guys. My protestations that I’d joined just because I was interested in pastoring, quoting Mark 2:17 more than once in our “discussion,” made no difference to her.

If I could go back to those heated moments with her, knowing what I know now, I’d handle myself, and her, much differently. I was more interested in winning the point than helping her understand my motivations. It’s not that disputes and arguments aren’t worth having. Sometimes they’re needed. Sometimes one should defend him/herself. The question is when.

By defending yourself, I mean the actions you take to clarify your beliefs, principles, positions, endorsements, associations, words or actions subject to misunderstanding or misconstruing. I do not mean answering epithets, counterattacking, or high-stepping your way into a rhetorical end zone merely for scoring points or pleasing your partisans, nor am I addressing the physical reality of self-defense due to threat or altercation. Here are three guidelines humbly offered:

Defend yourself when the person on the other side is open to your offer of explanation. I wrote a column for The Commercial Appeal a couple months ago on gay marriage, why evangelicals cannot support it. The online version of the article on the paper’s website filled quickly with comments, most of which were heatedly derogatory of my principles and debased my character. I didn’t attempt to clarify anything on those comment threads because it was clear from reading them that those posting would not be open to my explanations. I would have been even more pilloried had I tried to interact with them, like blood in shark waters. As the old Scottish novelist George MacDonald put it, “To give truth to him who loves it not is but to give him more plentiful material for misinterpretation.” I think in this vein of Paul’s response in Philippians 1 to his envious opponents and Jesus’ response to his Jewish and Roman interrogators after His arrest.

Defend yourself when you can scour your language of the provocative. In other words, don’t use words or language in reply that invites more offense. This can’t always be helped as people looking for offense can make mansions out of matches. But if you’re trying to clear up someone’s misunderstanding or misconstruing of your words or actions, take the Joe Friday (Dragnet) approach: “Just the facts, ma’am,” and keep the incendiary in your mental incinerator.

Defend yourself when it becomes apparent that not doing it is cowardice. Brave and bravado is not the same thing, of course. Bowing up on someone out of self-importance, because you-won’t-take-that-from-anyone, is a kind of bullying and bullies by definition are all bravado, lashing out from insecurities. I’m advocating here for that kind of self-defense that displays strength of conviction. Not I-won’t-let-you-get-away-with-that, which is more about winning, but I-won’t-refuse-you-the-explanation-for-why-I-said/wrote/did-that, which is more about clarification and standing on what and why.

Self-defense is a tricky deal. As Jeremiah pointed out, my heart is desperately deceitful and so I can be wrong even when I think I’m right. The older I get the more I consider the willingness to apologize and receive correction to be the death knell of arrogance. But people will misunderstand and misconstrue my words and actions at times. God grant me the grace to know how to advance the right defense.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 5:15 PM
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